NEW ORLEANS -- Never closer and never better, the two best players on Roy Williams' best Kansas team hung their heads under the hot, bright television lights, spoke in whispered tones and tried to make sense of it all.
One more shot, said Kirk Hinrich, who has a career full of clutch ones. One more rebound, said Nick Collison, who merely had 21 on the evening.
|Kirk Hinrich and Roy Williams run into a Syracuse team that has just enough to beat the Jayhawks.(AP)|
"I've never been one to like moral victories and I don't like this one," said Williams. "But I love the competitiveness of my kids. I love the way that they fought until the very end and things didn't look good a lot of times during that game, but they never quit playing. That's what college athletics is supposed to be about."
Monday's national championship game, won by Syracuse 81-78, was what college basketball is supposed to be about. Two tremendous teams in a well-played game giving every ounce of themselves to win a team title and nothing else.
College hoops fans have Collison, Hinrich and the rest of the Jayhawks to thank for that, because midway through the first half, with the Orangemen seemingly burying every shot they attempted, Kansas could have quit. Or at least let up. This could have quickly become a rout.
It never did. Kansas never even thought about it.
Down 18 in the first, Kansas barreled back into it and closed the gap to three less than three minutes into the second half. When SU returned the fire and stretched to a seemingly unbeatable 12 with 4:24 left or seven with 1:53 remaining, there were the Jayhawks with one more steal, one more stop, one more show of force.
But in the end SU was too much and too tough. Collison fouled out after giving KU 19 points, 21 rebounds, three blocks and every bit of effort he had. Hinrich, on a gimpy ankle, had one potentially game-tying 3 rim out and another miss the rim altogether.
"That last 3 I took," said Hinrich, who overcame early struggles to finish with a gutsy 16 points, "you know, I just didn't get a very good look."
In the end Kansas just didn't have enough on a night when Syracuse had everything going for it. The lack of depth, exasperated by a midseason injury to forward Wayne Simien, became an issue as KU couldn't press and couldn't get Collison out of the game when he got in foul trouble.
"Somebody asked a question about pressing, why didn't you press the whole game?" said Williams. "We can't. We don't have enough guys. You got to dance with what brung you. We're not that kind of team. We won't have enough players to play, make substitutions."
In the end, tired legs contributed to a 12-of-30 effort from the foul line that certainly played a difference. If the Jayhawks had hit more, SU would have played differently down the stretch, so it isn't as simple as saying hit four more freebies and the NCAA title is theirs. But 18 missed free throws matter.
"We fouled the guys we wanted to foul," said SU coach Jim Boeheim. "(Jeff) Graves shoots 38 percent. What's 2 for 7 (Graves' free-throw stat line)?"
But what Kansas lacked in bodies it made up for in heart. Collison had an incredible night, especially early when Syracuse had the Jayhawks on the ropes and Hinrich's outside shot was going crooked.
The 6-foot-9 senior forward had nine of Kansas' first 12 points. He picked up key rebounds and made all the little plays. Kansas was getting blitzed but if any Jayhawks were getting glassy-eyed as Gerry McNamara bombed in six first-half 3s, it could turn to Collison and see this game wasn't over.
"We fought back," said Collison. "We fought all year."
That's a realization that provided only so much solace in a morbid Kansas locker room. It did only so much to stop the emotion of Williams, who was bleary-eyed at season's end again.
"This is one of those times that I feel so inadequate as a coach and so inadequate as a person because there's nothing I can say to change the way my kids feel," Williams said. "Nothing can change the way I feel. Not being able to coach Nick and Kirk again, that's hard.
"But if you ever have the chance to work with somebody and care about somebody as much as I have with these kids, you're going to be a really lucky person. And even though I'm in the wrong locker room, I really feel like I'm an awfully lucky person."
Collison felt the same way.
"You know, we've had great careers," said the All-American. "This will hurt for a while. It's a great place to be. I think any high school kid in the country needs to take a serious look at Kansas because you are not going to play for a better man. You're not going to play for a better staff.
"You know, I wouldn't trade it for anything. I wouldn't give a million dollars to be Syracuse right now. They have a ring. But my experience here has been unbelievable. We could have made the NIT and I still would have felt the same way."
Never closer. Never better.